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(Published: 2011-07-26)

What do soldiers and ballerinas have in common? At first glance, they appear to be opposites. One wears camouflage and boots, the other pink tulle and toe shoes. One dedicates themselves to country, the other to the arts. One navigates a battlefield, the other a stage. Both, however, are physically elite and live in insular worlds.

Given their missions, one would expect their training regimens to be as different as night and day, with soldiers doing sit-ups, push-ups, weight training, and endurance running, and ballerinas practicing Pilates and yoga.

Interestingly, both now have Pilates in common. Today’s Army, faced with a pool of overweight and unfit recruits, has a new fitness regimen. Instead of the traditional hard- core routine (which was good for building strength and endurance but often led to injuries), new routines have been developed based on Pilates.

The old exercise regimes isolated groups of muscles and worked each area of the body individually. Pilates treats the body as an integrated whole, incorporating more stretching, more exercises for the abdomen and lower back, and more agility and balance training.

Soldiers wounded in Afghanistan are also getting a therapeutic lift from Pilates. The WSJ recently featured an article on how members of Royal Danish Ballet are using Pilates to help rehabilitate wounded veterans. By focusing on smaller, oft-neglected muscles, emphasizing the training of deep abdominal, spinal, and pelvic muscles, Pilates helps amputees move with greater ease.

One soldier that lost both his legs in the war was able to do away with his cane soon after starting Pilates therapy. The resistance exercises, combined with breathing techniques, quickly fine-tune the communication between mind and body—a key element for anyone relearning how to walk again.

Another soldier who didn’t want to try Pilates because he thought it was “too girly and I didn’t have anything in common with ballerinas” quickly changed his mind after one session. The exercises may look deceptively simple, but they’re far more challenging than they appear.

Long a favorite of rock stars, ballerinas, and supermodels, Pilates has also been discovered by professional athletes. Many sports like baseball, tennis and golf are one-sided. Pilates strengthens the deep abdominal muscles needed for a stable base of support from which to hit the ball. The greatest benefits are fewer injuries and longevity of career.

Pilates is a fascinating discipline based on paradox and contradiction. It requires a unique balance of push and pull, resistance and assertion, trying hard and letting go. Another way of saying it: no pain, big gains from Pilates.

WSJ Photo:

Pilates reformer session

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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